In the Heart of the Sea

Suggested by Brad Nelson • In 1820, the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale, leaving the desperate crew to drift for more than ninety days in three tiny boats. This is the story of the true events that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
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39 Responses to In the Heart of the Sea

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I went to bed last night after finishing this book more than just a little disturbed. The final chapters (mild spoilers) deal, of course, with the latter stages of the three whaleboats making their perilous and extended reach for the coast of South America. That is, we’re talking cannibalism.

    The irony is that they were, relatively speaking, an easy downwind journey to Tahiti or other nearby (mostly) friendly islands to the west after the Essex had been sunk by the angry sperm whale. Fear of cannibalism propelled them instead to go east.

    Eventually, in the captain’s boat, it was suggested by one of the three (or four) remaining men to draw lots to see who would be “et” next. They had already been eating those who died from starvation. But now they would murder someone in a lottery. The ghastly business was even more so because the captain’s nephew lost the lottery. And before leaving port, the captain had sworn to the kid’s mother to look after his nephew.

    I might — might, mind you — be induced by long hunger to chew on Mr. Kung’s leg or take a bite from Annie’s left arm. Maybe a nibble at Timothy’s bone marrow. But to engage in a lottery whereby you are killing people for food? I wouldn’t do that. In fact, one boat (headed by Chase, the first mate) did not do this, although they did eventually “et” one of their fallen comrades, but very reluctantly so. (Tastes like chicken. No, honest to god, I’m making that up.)

    Some of the other boats went about it much more enthusiastically. Yikes. But this is a good, page-turning story. I highly recommend it. But you might eat your dinner first.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      You will see similar things with the Donner Party (well written about by George Stewart in Ordeal by Hunger), though they — in theory — didn’t actually kill anyone for that purpose. (Well, the snowshoe party probably killed their Indian guides, and that may have helped motivate them. And no one knows for sure how Tamsen Donner died.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The book goes into appropriate, but not obsessive or overly graphic, detail about the starvation process. It’s easy to sit here in my armchair and say that I wouldn’t take a gnaw on Mr. Kung’s arm if I was in the same circumstance, but I would at least have the decency to say grace and use a top-quality steak sauce.

        The author notes that the percentage of fat on your body goes a long way in regards to how well you will do. That is apparently why the women survived the Donner Party (not much of a party, if you think about it). There were six or seven blacks on the Essex. The author speculates that they perhaps went first (and they did, besides the one white guy, Joy, who had other health issues) because of the typically lower fat percentage of blacks. Perhaps with is one reason white men can’t jump and blacks can. But these are dangerous issues to discuss for we are to celebrate the differences…but only some of them.

        The author notes that it is, on the surface, suspicious that the blacks died of starvation first (and then were eaten). But the author says there is no evidence they were murdered. And the one black who was the steward had better and more food so he was, indeed, the last black who died. But who knows?

        The author also points out the relative classlessness aboard a Nantucket whaling vessel. If you could do your job, nobody cared what color you were or where you came from. And, basically, all non-officers seemed to be treated equally bad, and the yutes (even if from Nantucket of good stock) were generally screwed as well by “The Company Store,” if you know what I mean. But when it came time to divide themselves into the three whaleboats, then it mattered more if you were from Nantucket (best), Cape Cod (2nd best), or elsewhere.

        One of the further ironies of this whole Essex debacle (and it really was an accident that could have been avoided or diminished), is that they needn’t have eaten anyone. The author points out a similar situation where a group of castaways used bits of meat from deceased crew members to bait sharks….which then were eaten. That sounds quite kosher, not to mention a hell of a lot smarter, to me.

        Frankly, none of the members of this crew impressed me as Rocket Scientists. Perhaps I’ll have to finish the Shackleton book if only to see what non-dumb-asses do in similar situations. I mean, there’s a lot of bravery involved in these whaling ships. But that doesn’t mean there was necessarily a lot of brain power or wisdom involved.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          It’s easy to sit here in my armchair and say that I wouldn’t take a gnaw on Mr. Kung’s arm if I was in the same circumstance, but I would at least have the decency to say grace and use a top-quality steak sauce.

          I admire your decorum. We all need to try and maintain it, especially in the most trying of times.

          Remember, no matter the location (a tent) or weather (monsoon) the young men of the Indian Civil Service always shaved and dressed in a correct manner before dispensing their rule upon the Raj. A tie was obligatory for dinner.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Brad,

          I forgot to let you know, I am old fashioned and prefer a good horse-radish or A-1 steak sauce. But given my Asian connections, I wouldn’t hold it against you if you used teriyaki baste and fava beans.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I rely on A-1 with steak, though not other meats (after all, it’s a steak sauce). I do use horseradish on prime rib. Teriyaki sauce, unfortunately, has too much salt for me to make much use of it.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              I like A-1 on a grilled hamburger as well. I agree with horseradish on prime rib. The Singapore American Club used to have prime rib as a special on Sunday brunch. It was the best beef in town.

              Teriyaki is actually best with small pieces of meat such as one gets with Japanese food. Maybe that’s why they invented it. Yakitori-Bansai!!!

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      This demonstrates how important leadership is. Contrast the results of this group with that of William Bligh’s of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame.

      Bligh successfully navigated his little boat full of men over 3,600 nautical miles (over 4,100 miles) to the nearest European settlement in Timor, with the loss of only one man.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The book mentions the extraordinary skill of Captain Bligh, Mr. Kung. He had a sextant (as they did on the whaleboats of the Essex) so they could determine latitude via measuring the angle of the sun at high noon (thus gauging how far north or south they were of the equator…and I state this for our general readers for I know that you know this). But neither Bligh nor the refugees from the Essex had an accurate time piece calibrated to know what the time was in Greenwich, England. If they had, they could have determined with good accuracy their longitude…how far east or west they were of the Prime Meridian.

        The alternative in determining longitude was doing a lunar calculation, something Bligh knew how to do (and required a clear sky, of course, and an extant moon) but no one on the Essex knew how to do this. One could also do “dead reckoning” by throwing out a line with knots tied in it at regular intervals to determine how many knots your boat was doing. Combined with guesses at wind and tides, a skilled and intelligent man such as Bligh could do this. And apparently Bligh did this exceedingly well.

        On Essex they tried this as well, but were not as diligent. They were also hampered by trying to keep all three whaleboats in sight of each other, often stopping and starting in fits. And at one point, none of the men had the strength left to either set the sail are tend to the tiller (which was of the type that required considerable strength, the normally oar-driven whaleboats having been jerry-rigged with sails and a tiller).

        But in regards to the crew of the Essex, you might have been better off jumping in the water and joining the dolphins.

        Is there a definitive book that tells the tale of Bligh and his men post-mutiny?

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I have seen a biography of Bligh, though I never got it. A decent (if somewhat short) study of captain, crew, and mutiny that includes what happened to them all afterward is Richard Hough’s Captain Bligh & Mr. Christian.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        And regarding leadership, Mr. Kung, the author also has some keen observations on this. He noted how the captain of the Essex was too easily pulled by majority opinion. He had initially wanted to sail west to a group of islands called the Marquesas which are northeast of Tahiti — or to Tahiti itself. He was easily talked out of it with talk of possible cannibalism.

        And this was patently a risky decision by any standards. Where they had to abandon ship, the winds strongly tended to blow to the west. With the goal of making the coast of South America, they knew they would have to travel a long way south in order to gain favorable winds that blew generally toward the coast of the continent. And looking at the map (this is a screenshot directly from the book), they certainly did have to travel some distance. It looks as if they could have sailed 1/5th of the total distance they wound up sailing and made it to the Marquesas Islands. And if they would have touched down in the Tahitis, they might have had topless women to great them as a bonus.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          And regarding leadership, Mr. Kung, the author also has some keen observations on this.

          To be a leader is to be alone. At some point in time, a leader is going to be required to make decisions which will hurt someone or some interest. He may have to make decisions which will appear to hurt everyone’s short-term interest with the intent of helping their long-term interests.

          This is one reason leaders can be an interesting study. On the one hand you will have leaders who are sociopaths who are not overly bothered by the destruction of others, i.e. of the pawns in a greater game.

          On the other hand, you have leaders who do care about their fellow man and suffer through the terrible decisions they may have to make to save a situation.

          I suspect the former are more numerous in history than the latter.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Note that the US expects (it’s probably a requirement, but at least it’s a standard) officers to inform families of the death of their kin who were subordinates. I don’t know what the rules are in terms of which level sends the notification.

        • Gibblet says:

          “He had initially wanted to sail west to a group of islands called the Marquesas which are northeast of Tahiti — or to Tahiti itself. He was easily talked out of it with talk of possible cannibalism.”

          It sounds like those who argued to travel east ended up eating their words. How ironic that they traveled that direction to avoid the possibility of encountering cannibals, and thereby became the very thing they feared.

          • Anniel says:

            Gibblet: Maybe that’s a profound truth about all of us.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            It was the first mate, Owen Chase, who I believe argued the strongest for trying to make the coast of South America. They certainly had plenty of time to make their decision. In fact, they rushed it for whatever reason, leaving several of the tortoises behind that they had plucked from one of the Galapagos islands. They could have at least slaughtered them and cooked the meat. They brought a couple live tortoises each on the whaleboats. The tortoises could apparently survive for six months or more without food or water, although I don’t think this was much fun for the tortoises.

            The heroic element is that so many survived at all. The technical heroic element wasn’t the navigation but their skill in keeping these whale boats in repair. These were old boats and never meant to take the constant pounding that they did. They had rigged the boats with sails and a rudder. The carpenter was particular adept at fixing what appeared to be unfixable. It also helped that when they landed on Henderson Island (in the Pitcairn group) they could turn the boats over and give them some needed attention.

            It’s interesting that three of the men decided to stay on Henderson Island. And I don’t blame them.. It certainly had to appear that the men were doomed to starve on the open sea in the whale boats. The pickings were slim on Henderson, but with McGyver-like ingenuity, they could survive…and did until they were picked up, although the captain of the ship estimated at the time that they couldn’t have survived for more than a few months longer. They’d “et” all the land crabs. There were birds and bird’s eggs across the island, buy they may have “et” their way through those as well.

            One of the surprising moments of their voyage was when the carpenter had to get into the water to fix one of the boats. He discovered a kind of edible barnacle called a goose barnacle that was growing on the sides of the whaleboats. They had a good snack from them.

            The whaleboats themselves had no centerboard so were not the most efficient boats for sailing. For one thing, I think it keeps a boat from just sliding across the water sideways.

  2. Anniel says:

    Sheeesh, no wonder I’ve been feeling subdivided the past few days. I hope you would say grace over me, too, Brad. Right now I’m still in the freezer for future fighting over.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I imagine your heart would be the tenderest part. Ahh…gee….I think that’s a warm, glowing compliment…or run for the hills!

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Actually, according to Alfred/Alferd Packer, the tastiest human flesh is the breast area (just like with chicken). He probably didn’t have any good sauces available, however.

    You know, I’m reading this book, Timothy, and thinking “Doesn’t anyone want to die with dignity and preserve their humanity?” Only on the first mate’s boat does this appear to have been foremost on Owen Chase’s mind who regularly counseled hope to his men in the bleakest moments and buoyed their spirits. (And if he had stabbed the damn whale when he had a chance, none of this likely would have happened. The first time the whale rammed the Essex, it sat stunned at the side of the boat for a few minutes. The boat was uninjured. Chase didn’t harpoon the easy prey because the whale was too close to the rudder and he thought he might damage it in his thrashings. The whale revived and took another fatal run at the ship. Oops.) In fact, I believe it was in his boat that one of the men found a sense of religiosity and then went on to write and speak about his hardship in those terms.

    Yes, yes, yes. Easy for me to say. I can’t keep the Tootsie Pops out of my mouth. Put me on a boat with starving crew-mates and I might be eyeing them for their breast meat as well.

    But the author forwards the idea, in an overall way, that there is something particularly nasty about being on a crew of a whaling vessel. This is hard, bloody, violent work. And I’m no Greenpeace activist, but it must wound something to regularly kill such magnificent creatures. You must have to bury part of your humanity already to do that sort of work.

  4. Gibblet says:

    “Gibblet: Maybe that’s a profound truth about all of us.”

    I’m pretty sure I won’t be yachting with Brad anytime soon.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      One should be very careful who you get into a boat with. Don’t assume people know what they are doing. There is no way I currently have the skills to take a boat into the ocean, although I could certainly cruise around the sound okay in a powerboat, although I’d need a refresher course on current rules and such. (Can you still pee off the side of the boat?)

      Other than being pleasantly horrified in the comfort of one’s armchair, what is there to be learned from reading such books? One thing is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Small misjudgments can snowball into disasters. Eat your excrement sandwich early and often instead of “saving face” and facing worse things. The crew of the Essex, governed by what psychology I do not know, made a patently horrible decision not to sail towards Tahiti or the islands thereabouts.

      Also, if you are running short on food, at least have the dignity to do what Captain Oates did on the Scott expedition. Instead of eating Scott he announced, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” The British may have been very bad planners at times, but (at least on this expedition) they were not barbarians. They knew how to die.

      People remember Captain Oates fondly. But no one will remember fondly the person who says, “Pass me crewman Olsen’s leg…I’ll have a try at that. The breast meat was a little gamey.”

      • Gibblet says:

        My father, King Neptune, has had so many near disasters at sea (some in which I was a voluntary participant) that I could go on and on recounting the ways he has avoided death-by-boating.

        There was one time (about 1972) when he and his dad were out on the Sunfare, an old wooden yacht with the engine compartment under the captain’s chair. Carbon monoxide was leaking from the compartment and my Grandfather passed out first. My Dad raced (by Sunfare standards) back to the marina and aimed the boat at an empty slip, shifted to neutral, and passed out before the boat hit the dock. Fortunately there were some Firemen (God bless them) at the marina doing inspections and they heard the commotion and arrived in time to revive my Dad and Grandfather.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Holy smokes. That’s funny because of the non-tragic ending. I can see Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon playing your father and grandfather in the movie.

          My father’s powerboat was a 32 foot Shane (a slightly “designer” boat for it’s time…and it’s “timie” had been many decades ago). It had a displacement hull and looked quite similar to this. And because the boat was fairly slow, you felt every wave. It did not plane on top of the water as most powerboats do.

          We were not monetarily rich (not sure we were ever spiritually rich either, but that’s another story). The “rich” people amongst my father’s peers (and piers) had larger Chris Craft planing boats with lots of room and lots of varoom. Given that drinking, not fishing, was the major pastime at this particular yacht club, they didn’t need all that speed…and probably shouldn’t have had it. But out on the water with waves buffeting you and such, who can tell who is a little tipsy? And usually it doesn’t matter. There is no “ditch” to drive into most of the time.

          Due to the slow speed of the Shane, it was difficult to have any kind of accident. The difficult aspect with this boat (or perhaps any boat) was in docking it. It’s not as easy as it looks.

          But we had no major accidents, just minor breakdowns here and there (the worst being we got the boat started *just* before drifting into one of the Narrows Bridge concrete pillars…not sure we would have “et” each other had we found ourselves in the dinghy abandoning ship). My father, like myself, had an affinity for old things. His style, such as it was, made up (in part) for the lack of riches. And that old wood (never fiberglass) Shane had lots of weighty (often clunky) style. You haven’t lived until you’ve used a pump toilet.

          My dad did not have Sunfare standards. He had to do everything fast and rushed. One non-lethal accident that comes to mind is when we were anchored or tied up to a dock and some asshole cruised close by at high speed. The pot of chile my mother had on the stove got dumped onto the floor. Courtesy, people. Courtesy. That likely was one of the drinking boats.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            What’s the old saying? “A boat is a hole in the water surrounded by (take your pick) wood, fiberglass or steel, into which one pours money.”

          • Gibblet says:

            “I can see Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon playing your father and grandfather in the movie.”

            You have cast them perfectly Brad! Jack Lemon would be my upbeat we-are-all-having-fun-or-going-to-die-trying Dad, and Walter Matthau my hard of hearing never-waste-an-opportunity-to-manage-things Grandfather.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              LOL. A great pair (actors or family, I’m not sure). I wish more people would and could describe their personal or family vignettes with such humor and light-heartedness as you do, Gibblet.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          One of the greatest railroad disasters in history (which I read about as a child in an article in The Stars and Stripes while we lived in Greece) came in 1944 Allied-occupied Italy. An overloaded train went into a tunnel but couldn’t climb an upgrade in it. Carbon monoxide first killed the engine crew, then worked its way back to get almost everyone else.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Yikes. And I thought carbon dioxide was such a killer. That’s a tragic story. One thing about my father, he wasn’t the passive type. He would have gotten himself the hell out of that tunnel knowing exactly what would happen.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      When a friend of mine was doing an installation in Reno many years ago, he had to go to Sacramento for some reason. This was wintertime, and the highway between the cities goes through Donner Pass. I suggested he bring someone with him just in case. . . .

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